Map Maker Biography: Sebastian Münster (1488 - 1552)

Portrait of Sebastian Munster (1488 - 1552) Source: Wikipedia

Sebastian Münster

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Sebastian Münster (1488 – 1552), a German cartographer, cosmographer and Hebraic scholar, was one of the more influential minds of his time.  Though born in a small town on the Rhine between Mainz and Bingen, by the age of fifteen he was already attending the prestigious University of Heidelberg, where he was to study from 1503 - 1508, concentrating on the arts and theology. As an adult he would be known as a true Renaissance man, a polymath with wide ranging interests who became expert, a renowned authority, in Greek and Hebrew, mathematics and astronomy. 

While at Heidelberg, he entered the Franciscan Order and on completing his degree there he pursued his studies further with two well-known academics, Konrad Pellikan and Johann Stoffler. The years spent with these eminent scholars are considered to have been his truly formative years, and the influence of Pellikan had an effect on Münster that would last throughout his life, for it was with Pellikan that he studied Hebrew, Greek and cosmography, the primary studies and interests to which he dedicated himself.

Stoffler’s influence was also of serious import, and from 1514 or 1515 as his student at Tubingen, Münster deepened and broadened his knowledge of mathematical geography and cartography. Mathematical disciplines were of especial importance in early cartography, and cartography in turn played an important role in mathematics, since cartography measures positions of places (and mathematics is a science of measurement) and represents the surface of a sphere on a two dimensional map. These were special fields of interest to Stoffler who, by the time Münster came to study with him, had already written a commentary on Ptolemy's Geographia.  

Much of Münster’s most serious study took place during this time and his Kollegienbuch, or lecture-notebook, throws significant light not only on his early geographical studies, but on the source-materials at his disposal, and on his later evolution as a cartographer. It contains extracts from various publications, with commentary, and a series of 44 maps considered important by Münster. Of them, over forty were derived from existing printed materials. However, a map of the Rhine River from Basle to Neuss is believed to be an original.

Following these studies there is a partially documented period in his life dating from 1518 – 1529. While much is unknown about these years it was a time of serious intellectual activity resulting in his earliest printed works on cosmography, geography and applied mathematics along with publications in his other field of study – Hebrew.

Most of Münster’s early Hebrew work was published by Johann Froben the same printer for the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, but he also worked with Adam Petri, who had printed a German translation of Luther’s Wittenberg theses. In 1524 Münster was appointed to teach the Hebrew language at Heidelberg, where he stayed for five years despite miserly pay. In 1529 he was offered the chair of Hebrew at the University of Basel, and he was to spend the remaining years of his life there.  

After moving to Basel in 1529, Münster left the Franciscan Order and became a strict Lutheran. A year later he married the widow of Petri, a step which gained him both financial security and access to the important printing house of his stepson, Heinrich Petri, who published much of Münster’s subsequent work. His life in Basel was stable and allowed him time for incessant study and publishing, for much travel, and for intense correspondence with various academics and intellectuals of his day.

In 1540, Münster published his edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. It contained 48 woodcut maps, including the usual Ptolemaics, along with a number of new maps of great import in the mapping of 16th century Europe. This publication not only brought him great acclaim, but also seriously influenced successive cartographers. On its completion he went back to one of his favourite topics, describing Germany, and collecting information and data for his next major work.  In 1544, he published the first edition of Cosmographia, featuring the results of much of his own geographical research and results of research by many of his correspondents and colleagues. His 1550 edition of the Cosmographia included a large number of town and city prospects, and with this definitive edition of the Cosmographia, Münster attained true universal acclaim as a cartographer. He died of Bubonic Plague while residing in Basel, Switzerland in 1552. 

Enjoy some some maps by master cartographer Sebastian Münster which we have sold here at New World Cartographic.

Typus Orbis Universalis by Sebastian Munster

Typus Orbis Universalis by: Sebastian Munster, 1550

Tabula Novarum Insularum quas Diversis Respectibus Occidentales & Indianas uocant by: Sebastian Munster, 1550

Tabula Novarum Insularum quas Diversis Respectibus Occidentales & Indianas uocant by: Sebastian Munster, 1550

India Extrema XXIIII Nova Tabula by: Sebastian Munster, 1552

India Extrema XXIIII Nova Tabula by: Sebastian Munster, 1552

Aphricae Tabula III by: Sebastian Munster, 1552

Aphricae Tabula III by: Sebastian Munster, 1552

Terra Sancta XXIII. Nova Tabula by: Sebastian Munster, 1545

Terra Sancta XXIII. Nova Tabula by: Sebastian Munster, 1545

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